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This is a story of the third way. Choosing the right car, especially in the sub-RM100,000 bracket, has always been a case of catch-22. Modern options with powerful downsized-turbo engines are fun, but might bring about reliability issues in the long run. Such is the case with the existing Volkswagen Polo 1.2 TSI.

Now, Volkswagen Group Malaysia (VGM) claims that all known and rumoured problems related to its DSG dual-clutch gearbox and TSI forced-induction engine have been banished altogether, but as with most things, once the seed of doubt has been planted, it’ll likely stay a prevalent force. Ford’s Powershift ‘box faces the same issue.

Meanwhile, the tried-and-tested alternative of traditional, i.e. Japanese, B-segment offerings such as the Toyota Vios and Nissan Almera hint at pocket-friendly motoring, but can be seen as the outdated and dull way out. VGM now says that it offers the third way – the new locally-assembled, German-engineered VW Polo 1.6.

Is it the ideal choice Malaysian car buyers have been waiting for, then? We’re here to find out.

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Welcome, then, to Volkswagen’s vision of the perfect compromise. Thanks to the combination of CKD-status tax-breaks and proven technologies – 1.6 litre multi-point injection (MPI) engine and conventional (Aisin-sourced) six-speed automatic transmission – the new cut-price Polo hatchback lets you eat the cake that you own.

Its introductory price of RM85,888 (for the first 500 customers, after which it will revert to RM87,888) places it well within the market that has long been dominated by the select few – Toyota, Honda, Nissan and just recently, Ford. For many, Volkswagen’s quasi-premium image lifts the Polo 1.6 beyond its price rivals.

What’s obvious to point out is the engine transplant. The fully-imported, RM114,888 Polo 1.2 TSI (which is still available in VGM’s expanded model range) featured a direct-injection turbocharged engine paired to a dual-clutch gearbox. Both key features have been lost in translation in the Polo hatchback’s localisation process.

As mentioned above, the motivator is now a 1.6 litre MPI engine matched to a standard torque convertor with six forward cogs. It makes 105 PS, which equals what you’d get from the 1.2 TSI mill. What it can’t give you, though, is the turbo motor’s 175 Nm of torque, nor its 5.3 litres per 100 km (18.9 km/l) economy average.

Instead, you get a smaller helping of 153 Nm of driveshaft-twisting force – delivered at 3,800 rpm (versus the flat 1,550-4,100 rpm torque curve the TSI enjoys) – and an inferior claimed combined figure of 6.3 litres per 100 km (15.9 km/l). Its 0-100 km/h and top speed numbers take a dive too, down from 9.7 seconds and 190 km/h to 11.1 seconds and 184 km/h respectively.

So it’s not a good start, then? It depends on your perspective, really. If you’re looking at the Polo 1.6 as a (near RM30,000) cheaper alternative to the CBU Polo 1.2 TSI, then yes, it comes off as the poor cousin. But VGM prefers you look at it from a different point of view – through the eyes of a potential Vios/City/Jazz/Rio buyer.

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This changes the Polo 1.6’s outlook dramatically. Suddenly, its 153 Nm of torque becomes a class-leading figure, and so does its efficiency claims. Power is well off the City and Jazz’s 120 PS, but in such (relatively) low-power applications, it’s torque that counts. And it shows. The cherry on top of all this, of course, is the all-important Volkswagen badge.

Its efficiency numbers aren’t mere claims either, as the test car managed to clock in an impressive 17.5 km/l through a realistic 100 km real world test with yours truly (who you know is not exactly a lightweight) at the wheel, plus our sister site InfoKereta.com’s Izwa Sadali (who is), new paultan.org recruit Jonathan Lee and another in tow. Impressive.

Now, forget all this numbers game for a moment. When such cars are parked, it doesn’t matter what they’re like on the roads, as long as they’re objects of visual desire. Is the Polo such an item? Without the badge, possibly not, but with it, displayed with such pride both front and back, it definitely is. Very much so.

Volkswagen can be accused of pandering to its buyers’ desires with a same-again style instead of stretching their perceptions, yet the Polo, even many years down, defines the meaning of crisp. The shape certainly needs bigger wheels and a light metallic shade, but with both it’s beyond desirable. It’s the “premium” car for the mass market.

Objectively, the Polo seems passionless. This isn’t a design that suggests forward motion, never mind speed, but the simple lines and surfaces show a pleasing logic and give a sense of solid sculpture. It’s a true blue Volkswagen, even if it’s one without the excitement. Which, of course, is the idea, given that it’s the ‘starter’ VW and costs considerably less than the rest of the range.

No, you can’t get away from this car’s price, for it is its most important feature. It’s not exactly cheap or even affordable, but for what it is, or rather what it represents (as an entry into the so-called premium and German motoring world), it looks like a bargain. So far, at least.

Start it up, and the edifice of desirability is contained. It immediately feels and sounds more sophisticated and substantial than its Eastern rivals. There’s no explaining it. It just does. And the sensation is kept intact when you move away too, the smooth-shifting six-speed slushbox and relatively quiet engine keeping you in the premium/German/Volkswagen bubble.

Push on, and it pales in comparison to the 1.2 TSI, but not the conventional pack. The frantic action delivered by the turbocharged engine from the low reaches of the rev range is gone altogether, replaced by a linear power delivery that doesn’t really come on steam until the needle goes past 4,000 rpm. It’s back to planet conventional, dear Polo.

But don’t forget – as VGM keeps reminding us – that the Polo 1.6 doesn’t compete against its more expensive and accomplished brother. It’s here to take on the Japanese and Korean offerings head on. And with that in mind, it’s back in our good books again, as its performance and refinement aren’t really lacking in any sense.

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This is not a fast car, let’s put that to rest. It takes all of 11.1 seconds to reach 100 km/h, and if that sounds slow to you, it’s because it is. Crucially though, it’s no slower than anything it’s priced against, and if anything, it has the most accessible performance of the lot.

While you’d wince at the screaming engines in the rest of them, the Polo remains cultured throughout our drive. Its torque advantage comes into its own when the roads open up. For once, part throttle inputs are enough to bring the Polo up to respectable speed. It all feels more effortless, more serene, more sophisticated.

On top of that, it’s by far and away the most refined vehicle in its (price-led) market. It’s significantly quieter even than the much-improved Toyota Vios, let alone the severely under-insulated Honda City and Jazz. On the move, this is the biggest differentiator between the Polo 1.6 and the rest. Together with ride comfort.

While it may not perform as well as the Polo 1.2 TSI, the locally-assembled model here inherits much of its stand-out big car-feel. It handles Malaysia’s ‘unique’ road conditions with nary a complaint nor clamour. Where the rest would have jarred its occupants silly – some (Kia Rio) more than others (Vios, Ford Fiesta) – the Polo remains unperturbed.

How it handles, though, is a different matter again. In essense, it offers a fluid, easy driving experience. A pleasure machine, it is not. Though many believe that the Polo 1.2 TSI, and by a bigger margin, the Polo GTI too, are keen handlers, they really aren’t, so it’s no surprise that the 1.6 variant proves to be a sedate driver.

It’s not quite as flickable as the feisty Ford Fiesta, nor does it offer as satisfying a drive as the Honda Jazz. The steering, though quick and direct, is under an information blackout. It always feels the same regardless of what’s happening between road and tyres.

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You end up turning the wheel a guessed amount, seeing what happens, then adjusting to suit. The well-balanced suspension keeps the responses decently taut without wrecking the ride, which helps with the fluidity of it all. It’s all precise and honest, which it needs to be as the CKD Polo goes without the safety net of any form of stability control.

Speaking of safety, airbag count is a lowly and worrysome two, down from the imported model’s four (dual fronts, plus combined curtain and side airbags). VGM says it didn’t have a choice in this matter, as the CKD packs come from India, where the Polo hatchback is only ever offered in such configuration.

The negatives stretch into the interior too. Sitting in the Polo 1.6, you’re fooled into thinking you’re in the European-spec 1.2 TSI – a better specced one at that, as this one adds on the newer RCD320 head unit and single-zone automatic climate control – until you start touching the dashboard.

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Yes, the lovely soft-touch materials that are found in the imported model have all been replaced by hard plastics. And the changes go beyond that too, which you can see rather than read about in our comprehensive walkabout video of the CKD VW Polo 1.6. It’s RM30,000 cheaper after all, so something’s got to give, right?

To be fair – yes, this again – even in its current localised state, the Polo’s interior is no worse than its real price competitors. You’ll find no soft materials in the Vios, City, Jazz, Fiesta or Rio either. If you do, then you’re probably touching the seats. Or yourself.

Yes, we keep coming back to this – that the Volkswagen Polo 1.6 is a rival to the models above, not its own brother, the Polo 1.2 TSI. If you can keep that in mind, then you’re likely to be impressed by it. But if by any chance you’re familiar with the imported model, you won’t be, period.

It all boils down to this. If you can afford the 1.2 TSI, that’s the one you’ll want. But if you can’t, the Volkswagen Polo 1.6 will do nicely as an alternative to the usual suspects.

 

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